As dazzling a rookie debut as it was, Cam Newton left thoroughly unsatisfied.
Not only did his Carolina Panthers lose that 2011 opener at Arizona, 28-21, but also Newton got a jarring reminder that even when he puts on a show — 422 yards passing and three touchdowns (one rushing) — the possibility of an “L” still lurks.
“The last time I lost a game was at Navarro Junior College,” Newton told reporters in the aftermath of that welcome-to-the-NFL defeat. “What do you want me to say, it feels great? It’s not a comfortable feeling for me.”
The star rookie who walked away from that game on a high note was Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson, who scored the winning touchdown on an 89-yard punt return, at the time the second-longest in club history.
Newton and Peterson will face each other again Sunday — for the fourth time — when the Panthers play host to the Cardinals in the NFC championship game.
Both have gone on to phenomenal careers since that game in 2011. Peterson was selected to his fifth Pro Bowl this season — the last four as a cornerback after the first as a kick returner — and joins Hall of Famers Jim Brown, Barry Sanders and Emmitt Smith as the only players to be named to five Pro Bowls before their 26th birthday.
For the first time in his career, Newton is likely to be named the NFL’s most valuable player. He has led the Panthers to a 15-1 record and is the only player in NFL history with 30-plus passing touchdowns and 10-plus rushing touchdowns in a season. His 31 career regular-season games with both a passing and rushing touchdown is tied with Hall of Famer Steve Young in the record books.
“It was pretty much upon us that we were going to be in the NFL for a long time and make some noise early in our career,” said Peterson, who was a defensive star at Louisiana State when Newton was winning a Heisman Trophy at Auburn.
“We both have happened to do a lot of great things for our organizations and our football team, and to be in the same class as Cam Newton was definitely an honor, but now to go up against him for the fourth time, it’s huge.”
One of Newton’s skills that makes him so dangerous is his ability to take off running, even though he has developed the drop-back part of his repertoire. The Cardinals have spent the week preparing for that.
“It affects the rush a little bit, but you still have to continue to rush because he still throws the ball very well,” Arizona defensive tackle Calais Campbell said. “When he throws it you have to throw your pressure at him. But you have to expect his ability to run the ball with his legs. It’s a process. We study film and try to make sure we’re prepared in knowing how and when he likes to run and try to do our best to stop it.”
Since making his rookie debut against them, Newton has played the Cardinals two times. They picked him off three times and kept him out of the end zone in a 22-6 victory at Arizona in 2013. The Panthers beat the visiting Cardinals, 27-16, in a playoff game last season, although Arizona had third-stringer Ryan Lindley at quarterback, not the injured Carson Palmer.
“It was a very, very disappointing moment leaving that stadium, but we knew that if we had a healthy quarterback, if we eliminated the turnovers, we thought we had a good opportunity of winning that ball game,” Peterson said.
When Newton and Palmer play Sunday, it will be the first time Heisman-winning quarterbacks have faced each other in an NFL postseason game. Newton threw for as many touchdowns as Palmer (35), and had one fewer interception (10).
Now, one win removed from his first Super Bowl appearance, he’s playing in the comfort of home.
“It’s just something different when you’re playing in a playoff game,” Newton said. “It brings a different type of aura to the game. We understand the moment and the moment is not too big for the guys in this locker room.”
Peterson knows where he’ll aim when he sees that 6-foot-6, 260-pound quarterback gliding his direction.
“I just try to tie shoestrings for him, just trip him up a little bit because he is a big, strong human being,” Peterson said. “You can’t take him up top because he’ll definitely make you miss that tackle, but for a DB you have to take out his legs, because you can’t run without your legs.”
So Peterson will be aiming low. And, in a larger sense, higher than ever.